Want to Maximize University Tech Transfer? Here’s a Little Advice

8/13/07

Boston University recently announced plans to enhance its technology transfer efforts. I have worked constructively with BU’s Office of Technology Development on a number of start-ups, including Afferent Corporation, a medical device company based in Providence, RI, and applaud the plans for expansion. As BU and other universities ramp up their efforts to commercialize technology, I have a couple suggestions to offer.

First, it is critical for universities to reach out to experienced entrepreneurs, who can act as advisors, teachers, and management leaders in new startups. While novel technology typically serves as the catalyst for a new venture, it is usually not the most important element of the venture (even though founding scientists, like myself, would like to think otherwise). The management team is the most critical element for a new start-up, and we academic scientists typically do not have the skills, experience, time, or focus to serve in such a capacity.

Universities need to find ways to get entrepreneurs involved with their academic communities. This could be through advisory committees, adjunct faculty positions, and entrepreneur-in-residence programs. These interactions would enhance the educational experiences of science, engineering, and business students, and substantially enhance technology-transfer efforts.

Additionally, universities should consider evaluating their IP portfolios as collective opportunities, and not simply as isolated cases arising from faculty laboratories. Too often university start-ups are one-trick ponies based on a new technology coming out of a professor’s lab. Academia encourages research independence, which leads to silos.

Tech transfer offices need to break out of this mold, and consider how different technologies can be combined to create strong, exciting new companies. Professor egos will need to be massaged, and the founding scientists will need to divvy up the founders’ equity, but in many instances these integrated efforts could enhance chances for success.

Along similar lines, universities should look to other universities, and consider creative ways in which their technologies could be combined in start-ups or existing, young companies. We need to establish new mechanisms that can facilitate these types of interactions and relationships.

Jim Collins is a University Professor, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Co-Director of the Center for BioDynamics at Boston University. A 2003 MacArthur fellow, he is a scientific co-founder and chair of the scientific advisory board of both Cellicon Biotechnologies and Afferent.

Jim Collins is a University Professor, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Co-Director of the Center for BioDynamics at Boston University. A 2003 MacArthur fellow, he is a scientific co-founder and chair of the scientific advisory board of both Cellicon Biotechnologies and Afferent. Follow @

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  • http://www.mattcenter.org Abigail Barrow

    Prof Collins is exactly right in his comments – and the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center’s (MTTC) efforts have been to support these kinds of outreach efforts by all universities, research institutions and research hospitals in the Commonwealth. Some of the ways we do this include:

    • Small gap funding grants to undertake proof of concept work on commercially interesting technologies (e.g. developing prototypes, doing initial animal studies etc.). These grants are awarded competitively and are available to all non-profit institutions in the state. The awardees are selected by a group of external, commercially savvy, business reviewers.

    • The Platform Program at which a researcher with a commercially interesting idea pitches their potential business to a small group of invited industry, investor and business executives. Presenters are coached extensively by the MTTC before their presentation. The Platform Meetings are “Candid but Kind” and are designed to get objective feedback as to whether there is an opportunity to found a new company and to obtain leads on who might be interested in supporting the development of the company.

    • A series of technology showcases – conferences at which early stage spin-off companies from the institutions and researchers who are considering starting a company present their business opportunities. The MTTC runs these in areas where there are a large number of spin-off companies and considerable regional investor and industry interest such as life sciences and nanotechnology. Our largest program is in late October and focuses on clean energy (and – yes – energy efficiency is also covered along with alternative energy sources).

    These programs help all institutions reach out to the entrepreneurial, industry and investor communities in the state while also providing these constituents with an easy way to access multiple institutions. For smaller research institutions it is especially hard to justify the establishment of these kinds of programs – but by working with all research institutions (representing an annual research budget of approximately $5.5 billion) the MTTC is able to provide them with these services. Since we were founded three years ago we have worked with over 25 Massachusetts institutions ranging from Harvard, MIT, and Boston University – to McLean Hospital and Hampshire College. For more information please visit our website at http://www.MaTTCenter.org.

  • Robert Buderi

    Thanks Abigail. These and programs like them in other types of organizations can make a tremendous difference. A big challenge for any organization lies in providing the personnel, resources, and commitment they need to evolve and flourish over time. How can you help ensure that?

  • Dana Bostrom

    All of these ideas are great. These ideas often rely on the “great feelings” of some willing entrepreneurs, who sometimes do not want to work with the university for the salaries of universities. But most universities do have good “friends” who serve in an advisory capacity.

    But one should think carefully about “one trick pony” companies. Companies very focused on creating a market or developing a single technology can be a great “krill” company (as my colleagues and I call them) for a “whale” company to gobble up — and the product may never have come to market any other way.

    The incentive structures at universities — the department structure and the licensing revenue sharing policy — which faculty create — also would benefit from change to enable more creative kinds of research & deals, faster.